Nature paper finds evidence humans in Southeast Asia 20,000 years earlier than first thought

A new paper published in Nature has found evidence of modern humans in Southeast Asia (Sumatra) 20,000 years earlier than previously thought.

University of Wollongong archaeologist Dr Gert van den Berg is a co-author of the paper which also suggests humans were living in rainforests a lot earlier than we thought they had the skills to do so.

‘’The age itself is not so surprising anymore because of the paper that came out recently [Aboriginal people have been in Australia for at least 65,000 years],’’ Dr van den Bergh said.

‘’The notion that modern humans were living in wet rainforest environments at such an early stage is perhaps the most important result of this study.

The notion that modern humans were living in wet rainforest environments at such an early stage is perhaps the most important result of this study. - Dr Gert van den Bergh

‘’It is difficult to survive in rainforests, there is not much food around. Most of the resources are up in the tree canopy so you have to be really clever to survive there.

‘’Now we have evidence that they were clearly entering rainforests by 60,000 to 70,000 years ago. It suggests they could adapt to a range of environments and were not reliant on savannahs to spread around the world.’’

A team of researchers led by Dr Kira Westaway from Macquarie University, used advanced techniques to identify and date the ancient teeth, which were found in the Lada Ajer cave site in western Sumatra 120 years ago.

A discovery of more than 10,000 artefacts has a team of archaeologists convinced Aboriginal people have been in Australia for at least 65,000 years it was found in July. Click the image to read the story

A discovery of more than 10,000 artefacts has a team of archaeologists convinced Aboriginal people have been in Australia for at least 65,000 years it was found in July. Click the image to read the story

The cave was originally excavated in the late 1880s by Eugene Dubois, the Dutch palaeoanthropologist of “Java Man” fame, and revisited 100 years later by John de Vos and Randy Skelton.

‘’The hardest part was trying to find the site again,’’ Dr Westaway said. ‘’This cave has been shrouded in doubt since it was first excavated.

‘’We employed a range of dating techniques from different institutions to establish a robust chronology that would, after 120 years, finally put an end to the uncertainty associated with the age and significance of these teeth.’’

Dr van den Bergh said the teeth, along with animal bones found in the cave, appeared to have been taken there by porcupines - and may never have survived or been found otherwise as the limestone in the cave helped preserve them.

We employed a range of dating techniques from different institutions to establish a robust chronology that would, after 120 years, finally put an end to the uncertainty associated with the age and significance of these teeth. - Dr Kira Westaway

‘’Rainforest ecosystems are bad for bone preservation and so fossils are very rare,’’ he said.

Dr van den Bergh’s former colleague at UOW’s Centre for Archaeological Science, the late Professor Mike Morwood - best known as the discoverer of Homo floresiensis (aka ‘the hobbit’) - is listed as a co-author on the paper.

The paper “An early modern human presence in Sumatra 73,000 -63,000 years ago” is in this week’s edition of Nature.

Related stories: Discovery rewrites history of Australia

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